Palestinian group tries to sue UK government

A Palestinian human rights group has gone to the British courts in an effort to force the government to adopt sanctions against Israel.

Al-Haq seeks a ruling from the High Court that British policy towards Israel is in breach of international law.

In an application for a judicial review filed in London on Tuesday, it named Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson and Defence Secretary John Hutton as defendants.

Al-Haq wants the UK to suspend arms-related exports to Israel by British companies; to insist the European Union suspends its preferential trading agreement with Israel; and to provide police with evidence to investigate war crimes allegations against Israelis intending to visit here.

The group is being represented by Phil Shiner of the Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers, who said that the UK was in “flagrant and continuing breach of international law” by failing to denounce Israel’s actions in Gaza and not taking all possible steps to ensure that Israel complied with international law.

The UK, he said, “has continued its arms trading with Israel and in fact in the first quarter of 2008 approved a record amount of arms exports to Israel.”

The legal campaign is being sponsored by the newly created Gaza Legal Aid Fund, which is also funding UK lawyer Daniel Machover’s attempts to have war crimes charges brought against Israelis in foreign jurisdictions.

Mary Nazzal-Battanyeh, a UK barrister who chairs the Human Rights Legal Aid Trust, which set up the fund, said: “The silence and complicity of the international community during the attacks on Gaza have forced Al Haq to challenge the international community directly on their obligations under international law, beginning with the UK.”

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: “The UK takes its domestic and international legal obligations very seriously and will vigorously defend proceedings against the relevant Secretaries of State. The series of claims made by PIL are wholly inapt for resolution in domestic legal proceedings. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.”

But she added that Britain had “some of the tightest regulations in the world for arms sales”. A licence would be refused “when there is a clear risk that proposed exports might be used for internal repression, or would be used aggressively against another country.

“Any evidence of the IDF methods or tactics during Operation Cast Lead will be taken into account in assessing such risks in considering relevant licence applications.”

She also stated: “We have made clear that credible allegations of war crimes and serious violations of international obligations by either side in the conflict should be investigated.” 

This is not the first time that Mr Shiner has turned to the British courts on behalf of the Palestinians.

In 2007, in co-operation with Al-Haq, he sought an order for the Department of Trade and Industry to publish its reasons for approving arms-related exports to Israel. Although the Court of Appeal rejected the case last autumn, an appeal will be made to the Lords.

    Last updated: 2:22pm, February 26 2009